Pasha Malla

Our Business In Living

Ten years ago, a director’s cut of “The Exorcist” was rereleased with several minutes of footage missing from the 1973 theatrical version. This additional material includes the infamous “spiderwalk scene,” in which a devil-possessed Regan scurries backward down the stairs, much to the horror of her mother, Chris — and, now we’ve seen it, the world.

I’m not sure why this is, exactly, but on YouTube two versions of the spiderwalk exist. One ends with Regan pausing at the bottom of the stairs with a mouthful of blood. In the other she flicks out a forked tongue and, on hands and knees, goes scampering after her mother’s friend. (Or personal assistant? Or partner? I’ve never been clear on who this person is).


William Friedkin, “The Exorcist: Two Alternative Spiderwalk Scenes” (1973)

Which version do you think is scarier? Me, the first one: I like how the shot cuts to black, and the monster-roar that plays over the blank screen is super creepy.

And that’s pretty much all I have to say about the spiderwalk. What interests me infinitely more in “The Exorcist” redux is a different outtake in which Regan is diagnosed with a “nerve disorder.” While I couldn’t find any corresponding video online, here’s the script. (Dr. Klein has just handed Chris a prescription from his notepad.)

DR. KLEIN
Now this is for Ritalin. Ten milligrams a day.

CHRIS
What is it? A tranquilizer?

DR. KLEIN
A stimulant.

CHRIS
Stimulant? She’s higher than a kite right now!

DR. KLEIN
Her condition isn’t quite what it seems. Nobody knows the cause of hyperkinetic behaviour in a child. The Ritalin seems to work to relieve the condition, but we really don’t know how or why, frankly. Your daughter’s symptoms could be an overreaction to depression — but that’s out of my field.

CHRIS
Depression?

DR. KLEIN
Well, you mentioned her father… the divorce.

CHRIS
Do you think I should take her to see a psychiatrist?

DR. KLEIN
Oh no. I’d wait and see what happens with the Ritalin. I think that’s the answer.

Ritalin! For demonic possession! While I have no idea what sort of resonance, hilarious or otherwise, this might have had to audiences in 1973, in 2010 Dr. Klein’s diagnosis feels like the sort of ironically referential, aren’t-we-wiser-now schtick most prominent, these days, in AMC’s TV Series “Mad Men.” (Dr. Klein, incidentally, lights up a cigarette in his office moments later.)


Matthew Weiner, “Mad Men” (Series One, Episode Two; 2007)

Though are we really any wiser? What might have been a throwaway line nearly forty years ago feels satirical now, especially considering how endemic drugs have become in the treatment of childhood behavioural disorders. Among the 4 million young Americans currently diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, some 2.5 million are on long-term medication — a 1600% increase from the seventies — most of it Ritalin or some off-brand version of methylphenidate.

Two and half million children, in the U.S. alone, on Class A psychoactives. This feels like the pretext for its own horror movie—not one little girl, thrashing around in bed and barfing green stuff, but a whole nation of preteen zombies drugged to the point of catatonia, vacant and oblivious to the world as it spins idly by.

Conversely, since methylphenidates are, as Dr. Klein points out, stimulants, they actually increase some children’s hyperactivity. In a Guardian piece, “Ritalin made my son a demon,” the mother of a pill-dependent five year-old describes her son: “He [became] like something out of ‘The Exorcist’… He stabbed his brother in the foot with scissors. I was frightened to go to sleep sometimes.”

Though it’s tempting, I’ll spare you my big pharma conspiracy theories and a semi-informed rant about ADHD as a fad diagnosis. I used to work at an elementary school, so I’ve seen first-hand the pitfalls and also the benefits of medicating “troubled” kids. But I’m no longer a teacher of kids, or a kid myself, and I have no pressing aspirations to become a child psychologist, family doctor, drug salesperson, or even a parent; I don’t have much invested in this issue beyond a persistent, nagging worry that it’s just another symptom of how deeply we’re fucking up life on planet earth.

And then there’s this.


The RSA, “Ken Robinson: Changing Education Paradigms” (RSA Animates, 2010)

I was introduced to “RSA Animates” when a friend alerted me to David Harvey’s excellent video treatise — “Crises of Capitalism” — and I’ve been a fan of the illustrated talks ever since. (I’ve included the video as an appendix at the end of this essay).

Ken Robinson wasn’t previously someone whose work I knew, but I’m in love with it, and him, a little bit now. Putting the animations aside for a moment, his lecture, though at times dismaying, is pretty compelling stuff. And while the titular paradigm shift will surely require a total reboot of not just pedagogical methods, but our entire culture, the solutions Robinson proposes feel exciting, possible, and hugely encouraging.

The bit I like most is the clever (at least to me, though I’m easily impressed) binary that Robinson draws, subsequent to his critique of the “fictitious epidemic” of ADHD, between aesthetics and anaesthetics. What seems at first a tricky bit of semantic finagling is so flawlessly integrated into his argument, so convincing on semiotic, linguistic and metaphorical levels… Well, let’s just say that the idea dazzled me just as much as a possessed nine year-old scuttling spiderlike down a staircase.

Of course, what makes the video YouTube-worthy, and I hope worth writing about here, is the accompanying “live” drawing. Maybe not so coincidentally, the RSA Animate spots seem to achieve exactly the sort of aesthetically inclined pedagogy Robinson is calling for. Without sensationalizing or compromising what’s being said, the illustrations, as they unfold in not-quite-real-time, add layers of subtlety, irony, humour and meaning not just to Robinson’s, but all the lectures in the series. Simply put: they reveal the speakers’ words as art.

Ken Robinson praises what he calls “aesthetic experience” for its capacity to “awaken” students and make them “fully alive.” Unfortunately, he claims, “We are getting our children through education by anaesthetizing them” — both pharmacologically and culturally. While Robinson limits his argument, at least in this talk, to public education, there’s something much more broadly relevant here, too. The prospect of a culture in which all people — adults and kids — fail to engage with anything that might “wake [them] up to what they have inside themselves” feels perfectly analogous to an epidemic of drugs designed to deaden the human spirit.

“Our business in living is to become fluent with the life we are living,” wrote John Cage, “and art can help this.” As he often did, here Cage borrowed (precariously, maybe, to skeptics — like me — of appropriated Asian wisdom) from Eastern philosophies that prize clarity and oneness of the self. Still, cynicism aside, wouldn’t all our lives be a little better if we knew ourselves a little more?

Modern society seems to specialize in an ongoing process of subliminal obfuscation, not to mention providing us countless mechanisms to consciously obscure ourselves from one another. But, yes, “art can help” — help slow us down, think, feel, listen — and aesthetic experience, as per Ken Robinson’s definition, seems a perfect antidote to the numbing, blurring clutter that fills our 21st century lives.


The RSA, “Slavoj Žižek: First as Tragedy, Then as Farce” (RSA Animates, 2010)

The terror of “The Exorcist” is based in a common fear: the total eradication of selfhood. This feels just as poignant and frightening today as it did, if the film’s success and legacy are any indication, in 1973. Never mind the spiderwalk; the movie is scary because, invaded and corrupted by the devil, Regan loses all agency over and fluency with her own body and mind. There is “someone inside” her and it makes her do awful things no nine year-old girl should ever do; Regan isn’t just possessed, she becomes something terrifying, and terrifyingly Other.

Watching the film now, with what we know about methylphenidates, that Ritalin is offered as a potential solution to this displacement seems a cruel joke. But when the drugs don’t work, it’s telling what finally rescues Regan’s true identity. (Take a bit of a symbolic leap with me here; let’s make Ken Robinson proud with our divergent thinking.) After all, what is an exorcism but someone reading, out loud, the powerful, restorative words written in a book?

- Pasha Malla

Video Appendix:


The RSA, “David Harvey: The Crises of Capitalism” (RSA Animates, 2010)

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Pasha Malla is the author of "The Withdrawal Method" (stories) and "All Our Grandfathers Are Ghosts" (poems, sort of) and "People Park" (a novel).